Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, dramatized by Nick Warburton

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The Barchester Chronicles on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 2-16 February 2014
As with many oft-adapted texts, The Barchester Chronicles series of novels can be reinterpreted in many different ways.
Listening to Nick Warburton's version of Barchester Towers, I was struck by how different it was in terms of tone from Michael Symmons Roberts' The Warden, the opening production in Radio 4's new season of Trollope's magisterial novel-sequence.  While The Warden was consciously explored for its contemporary parallels, particularly the ways in which innocent people can be destroyed by an over-zealous media, Barchester Towers came across as a production with distinct echoes of E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia, once memorably described as "a tussle among the teacups." 
Beneath the respectable surface of Barchester society there were deadly rivalries between individuals: any faux pas was immediately exploited for what it was worth.  The arch-exploiter was Obadiah Slope (Richard Lumsden), whose nasal twang and mock-genteel accent had distinct echoes of Uriah Heep.  No one was safe, it seemed, from his influence as he pursued his quest to become the Warden of Hiram's Hospital.  His stand-out performance was supported by a gallery of eccentric cameos, notably Miss Thorne (Una Stubbs), Mrs. Proudie (Joanna Monro), and Archdeacon Grantly (Malcolm Sinclair) and Mr. Harding (Tim Pigott-Smith), the last two returning from The Warden.
The production was narrated once again by the servant Mrs. Baxter (Maggie Steed), who assumed a more central role, as compared to The Warden.  Not only did she introduce various scenes for the listeners' benefit, but she was not above intervening in the action with sardonic observations on the protagonists' behaviour.  No one could hear her, of course (after all, she was only a servant), but her comments helped to underline Trollope's satiric purpose.
Did the production work?  With the memory of Martyn Wade's mid-Nineties version of the same text still fresh in the mind (as it has regularly been re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra), this Barchester Towers certainly appeared startlingly different.  Initially I felt that the tone of Marian Nancarrow's production was a little too arch, almost as if she were encouraging the actors to overplay for laughs.  But perhaps this strategy was the best means to illustrate the sheer ruthlessness of life in an apparently sleepy middle English parish.  I did find that, as the three episodes unfolded, the tone of the production grew on me.